All the pieces were in place to beat Maximum Security. He had a new jockey, a new trainer, a new track he hadn’t seen before — one that some of the best horses of their generations couldn’t figure out. And yet, while Saturday’s San Diego Handicap was the best opportunity for someone to get Maximum Security, nobody could.

Maximum Security Return
Maximum Security (left) held off Midcourt by a nose to win the San Diego Handicap. The 4-year-old colt is a 5/1 favorite to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. (Image: Benoit Photo)

The 4-year-old colt, now under Bob Baffert’s tutelage, captured the Grade 2, 1 1/16-mile test, beating a hard-charging Midcourt by a nose for his ninth victory in 11 races. It was Maximum Security’s first race in five months, the first since he won the $20 million Saudi Cup, and his first under Baffert. The Hall of Fame trainer took the horse after his previous trainer, Jason Servis, was indicted on charges he illegally doped his horses.

So questions abounded. How would Maximum Security run under Baffert? How would he run without his regular rider, the coronavirus-quarantined Luis Saez, aboard? How would he handle Del Mar’s track, which standouts such as Arrogate, Silver Charm, and Paynter never figured out?

And perhaps the 800-pound gorilla question in the room: Was Maximum Security’s success due to his talent or was his performance enhanced by Servis’ alleged pharmaceutical helpers?

July’s Favorite to Win November’s Breeder’s Cup Classic

As the 2/5 favorite, Maximum Security answered all of them with a gritty victory that showed why he may be the best horse of his generation. It showed overseas bookmakers enough to make him the 5/1 favorite to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Outside of Tiz the Law (7/1), Maximum Security is the only other horse in single digits on Oddschecker.

And Baffert issued a message to would-be contenders to the throne.

“I actually thought he was pretty good right after the race, being that I only had him about 80%,” Baffert told Del Mar media relations. “I didn’t think he’d have to do a stop-and-go movement, but he showed what a great horse he is.”

Indeed he did. Maximum Security’s victory illustrated several elements that go into a race and that often escape the casual viewer. First, jockeys are seriously underrated when it comes to athletic decision-making. Pinch-hitting jockey Abel Cedillo, who rode Maximum Security, broke out to the lead entering the first of two turns. But he was forced into a quick decision when Victor Espinoza and Midcourt made an aggressive move to push Maximum Security into a speed duel.

Jockey Decision-Making Makes or Breaks a Race

With that, Cedillo pulled back and let Midcourt set the pace. While that was happening, Flavien Prat and Higher Power were making their stalking move, passing Maximum Security and setting up position behind Midcourt. On the backstretch, Cedillo took Maximum Security outside and turned him loose. He blitzed past Higher Power, caught Midcourt midstretch, then held him off to the wire.

Which brings us to the second element. Maximum Security displayed all of the features that make him an elite horse: raw speed, tactical speed, and closing ability. Not every horse in Maximum Security’s position would have held off a pressing rival like Midcourt. Plenty of B-plus horses — good horses — would yield.

Not this one. Baffert repeatedly said Maximum Security is a lazy horse on the workout front. He has to be pushed, something Servis didn’t do. There were no early-morning speed workouts with mandatory gallop-outs — a Baffert staple. Putting this in terms relatable to every other sport, Maximum Security isn’t into practice.

Baffert Gets Maximum Security’s Minimal Practice Habits

Baffert realized that the moment he took the horse. Now that he’s got Maximum Security on a regular regimen that appears to fit, expect him to get better in his next start. That will be either the Aug. 22 Pacific Classic at Del Mar – a race Baffert’s won five times – or the Sept. 5 Woodward at Saratoga.

“He’s got a lot of will to win, he’s courageous and a smart horse,” Baffert said. “There’s just something about him. He’s got a lot of will to win. He’s got a lot of W’s by his name, and there’s a reason for that.”